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What’s Hardest About Aging Loved Ones When You’re Far Away

Ottawa, September 2022
Ottawa, September 2022

Life is a series of self-opening Pandora’s boxes.

Damn it. It sounded so straightforward on paper! Grow up, become a responsible adult, meet a soulmate and have kids (both optional), find your purpose and live a meaningful life, eventually get old and look back on your accomplishments, and one day, pass away with a smile on your face and no regrets.

But it turns out that Life 101 comes with unexpected plot twists. The back cover is actually pretty misleading, sometimes even deceptive—some of us have easier lives and more options, you might fail a lot and never succeed, anything worthwhile takes a lot of work, few people really care about you, no one owes you anything and life is definitely not fair.

It’s still a fun shared adventure where a sense of humour helps.

I’m at chapter 39 ½ of life and I’ve reached a few milestones, most of them not as advertised.

Take motherhood, for instance. On paper, I was promised the famous pregnancy glow, then a fulfilling role no other job can offer. Except that, in real life, it… ahem, it doesn’t exactly work like that. Go ahead, talk to other parents. Like, really talk to them. Open the Pandora’s box of parenthood, it’s enlightening—pregnancy is a love-it-or-hate-it experience, spending 24/7 with a baby/toddler isn’t actually that fun, the first years are exhausting and days never fucking end, finding a daycare is difficult (and childcare is very expensive), the lack of sleep makes you bitchy and prone to catching every single bug.

I mean, I don’t regret a thing. I love Mark and I wanted kids (I stopped at one, though, see above). But seriously, parenthood is hard.

Do you know what else is hard and not as advertised? Reaching old age, apparently.

Again, according to the media and conventional wisdom, the elderlies are mellow people who walk slowly, enjoy spending time cooking, gardening or fishing, share knowledge and wealth with their loved ones, and eventually pass away peacefully in their sleep.

I did open the Pandora’s box of parenthood but the Pandora’s box of aging opened by itself. I mean, I’m not at this stage yet—I’m raising a ten-year-old and my parents are in their sixties, so the old-old stage was at the back of my mind.

Except that I have grandparents in their nineties. Except that it turns out that my in-laws are now in their eighties.

I mean, most of us have beloved elderly relatives. If not, it means you probably went through what I’ve discovered—let me give you a hug.

Let me tell you what’s in the Pandora’s box of aging.

The elderlies don’t always age peacefully at home. They don’t always have a safe home to age in, for a start. At one point, they lose their husband, wife, and mind. At one point they need help with their daily routine—housekeeping, groceries, meals, and basic hygiene.

The elderlies don’t turn into amiable, good-natured people just because they’re 80 or 90. They are still their old self—anxious, depressed, overactive, manipulative, mean, messy, antagonistic and more.

Go ahead, ask around. I did. I have dozens of “I have no idea how to deal with my aging parents/grandparents/in-laws but I feel responsible for them” stories.

Only the royalty get to have a carefully planned “Operation London Bridge”. In the best-case scenario, your very, very old relatives explicitly say what they want or need—live at home for as long as possible or move into long-term care. Ideally, they financially planned for it.

But in real life, many elderlies just stay at home until it’s obvious it’s no longer an option. Many of them don’t have much money (left or at all). Many, many of them had no idea they would reach the old-old stage—and sometimes, they’re not happy about it.

Tons of my friends are raising babies, toddlers, kids and teens while wondering how to deal with old relatives they are responsible for. In the same conversation, we can talk about both daycare and long-term care (it’s expensive and hard to get a spot in both cases, FYI).

And of course, things are harder when you left sixty-something relatives to move to another country and now, twenty years later, you’re spotting early signs of dementia over Skype. Are you supposed to move back home? Have aging in-laws come over and live with you for a decade or more? Can you find the money to make their life easier and safer?

This summer, I learned that life is complicated… until the end.

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